Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Biplane © DNR File

A century ago, most people in northern Wisconsin had never seen an airplane before Jack Vilas arrived on the scene with his strange looking biplane.
© DNR File

June 2015

Back in the day

The world’s first forest patrol flight.

Ed Culhane

It was 100 years ago — June 29, 1915 — and famous aviator Jack Vilas, vacationing on Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin, was standing on a boat dock and on the brink of history.

The newspapers called Logan Archibald Vilas a "wealthy sportsman." Everyone else called him Jack. He’d had his Curtiss flying boat shipped to Boulder Junction by rail from his home city of Chicago. Easier that way. To fly it up, given its 62 mph average air speed and limited range, would have taken several days, and his mechanic would have had to follow him by rail with tools and spare parts in any case.

He was no stranger to the Northwoods. "For the first few trips that I made, we got off the train in Woodruff, which then consisted of a town of about 16 saloons, two stores and a post office," he later wrote.

But now the adventurous Vilas, showing up with his strange–looking biplane, had become the talk of the territory. Most people in northern Wisconsin, or in the world for that matter, had never seen an airplane. The Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk had occurred just 12 years earlier. It had only been two years since Vilas purchased one of the first commercially available planes ever built for $7,000 (comparable to $157,000 today). He was the sixth person licensed to fly a hydroaeroplane.

At the time, Wisconsin’s first chief forester, Edward Griffith, was stationed at the forestry headquarters at Trout Lake near Boulder Junction. Vilas took him for a flight, showing him a new way to look at the world, from 1,600 feet, his eyesight stretching across previously unimaginable distances, across a vast emerald forest dotted with hundreds of shimmering lakes.

"While we were talking," Vilas later wrote, "the notion struck me that I could spot forest fires a whole lot easier than rangers could from their observation towers.

" Vilas offered to fly forest patrols each day for the rest of the summer. He said he would do it for "many thanks" and a commission as the first flying fire ranger in the world from the Wisconsin Conservation Department, which he received.

There were no radio transmitters. To report a fire he had to land on the water at Trout Lake and phone forestry headquarters. Vilas’ idea caught on like, well, like wildfire. By the following January, the forest leader in Quebec, Canada, announced that planes would henceforth be used to locate forest fires. By 1917, what was called the "Wisconsin Plan" was taking root around the globe. By 1919 the U.S. Forest Service had introduced aerial fire patrols over national forests.

Ironically, in the Badger State the "Wisconsin Plan" was deemed too costly, and for the next 32 years the only fire routes in Wisconsin were flown by federal aircraft.

The son of a wealthy industrialist, Vilas eschewed work and chose a life of adventure. Before becoming a pilot at 32, he raced cars. Six weeks after getting his pilot’s license he famously became the first person to fly across Lake Michigan, making the 63–mile flight from St. Joseph, Mich., to Chicago on July 1, 1913, using dead reckoning. His mechanics lit a bonfire on a Chicago beach to guide him in.

It turns out the "Wisconsin Plan" stemmed as much from Vilas’ love of hunting as it did from his love of flight.

"Where I ever inherited the love for guns and hunting, I don’t know," he wrote in his memoir, "My Life To My Children," which he self–published in 1929. It has since been edited and republished by author Mary Schueller.

In this memoir, Vilas reveals a hidden agenda for his forest fire flights.

In his quest to shoot a wide variety of game animals he’d constructed what he called a "pede" — a hand–pumped cart that ran on railroad tracks and offered him deep access into the forest. The only problem: it wasn’t legal.

"I might also tell you," he wrote his children about his forest patrols, "that Poppie had a little method in his madness in proposing such a plan. Since I still had my shack up north, I was always in danger of the railroad company taking the pede away from me. Of course, I knew if I had an appointment as a fire warden, this would give me the privilege of using the pede over any of the railroad lines."

Ed Culhane is a DNR public affairs manager.